“I don't know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can't think we're creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth. ” —Michel Brault Current thinking points to the increasing lack of distinction between documentary and fiction film. Brian McIlroy has noted that “it is now common to read that, theoretically speaking, documentary and narrative fiction film ‘proper’ are indistinguishable as constructed realities” (McIlroy 1993, 288).
Similarly, Dai Vaughan, a documentary film editor for over thirty years, suggests that there are many who, “in blind deference to semiological axiom, have made a point of denying that there is any distinction to be found between documentary and fiction. A sign is a sign, and that is that. ” (1999, 184) The only difference between documentary and fiction film is the integrity of the film as being linked to our understanding of reality.
Vaughan refers to the term ‘actuality’ to describe our belief in the reality of the film, stating that “this actuality…is the subjective conviction on the part of the viewer of that prior and independent existence of the represented world which is specific to the photograph” (1999, 182). In a discussion of what it is about documentary film that makes it more “real” than fiction, Bill Nichols suggests that in documentary footage “some quality of the moment persists outside the grip of textual organization” (1999, 231).
Therefore the understanding we have of documentary has in some way depended on the ability of the photographic image to impart to us a belief in the existence of the represented beyond its filmic representation. To that extent, Vaughan suggests that “documentary may best be defined as the attempt at a materialist reading of film” (1999, 198), a way of examining a filmic text to decide on its position with respect to documentary. Observational films seemed more truthful in large part because they were not constrained by earlier technological limitations that often required more overt manipulation.
Dramatic reconstruction" was conventional in documentaries concerning people and events before the invention of the camera. Early documentaries, like Biograph's Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (1905), often used scale-model replicas in place of actuality footage in films. The March of Time , which began in 1935, freely combined actuality footage with dramatized sequences in a style that Henry Luce, head of Time, called "fakery in allegiance to the truth" (Barnouw 1974, 121).
The ideology of observational documentary has become so standard that its stylistic conventions, such as the jerky movements of the handheld camera, noticeable changes in focus, and the graininess of fast film stock, have become the common techniques for representing a "reality effect" in fiction film and on commercial television in both dramatic shows and commercials. Nevertheless, questions concerning the camera's physical presence, along with the issue of whether and to what extent the camera exploits or documents its social actors, have been hotly debated issues concerning both Griersonian-style and observational documentary.
Although the immediacy of observational cinema made the stylistic conventions associated with the Griersonian tradition seem outmoded and ideologically suspect, manipulation in documentary inevitably is a matter of degree (Hardy 1979). For although documentaries are factual, they are never objective or ideologically neutral. Aesthetic choices such as the selection of camera position, angles, and movement; lighting; and editing make the expression of point of view or perspective unavoidable, even if unintentional.
Just as the "fly on the wall" aesthetic of the Drew filmmakers was compromised to some extent by the commercial imperatives of television, so the nature of the film medium ensures that the hand of the maker must always work over the raw material on the editing table. Although for many viewers documentary still means objectivity, today it is much more commonly accepted that documentaries are inevitably biased. This is probably less a postmodern crisis in signification than the result of the proliferation of camcorders and a greater increase in basic visual literacy.
Yet it is symptomatic that many documentaries of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such as The Thin Blue Line (1988), seek to uncover ambiguities of truth rather than a unified, singular Truth. Stylistically, nonfiction films are now employing a more pronounced mixing of modes, combining elements of fiction and documentary, or creating an ambiguity concerning their documentary status, as in Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991).
British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield places himself squarely within his films as a character seeking the truth about his subject, whether about the murder of grunge rock icon Kurt Cobain in Kurt & Courtney (1998) or the female serial killer Aileen Wournos in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), but never quite finding it. Broomfield's quandary as a documentary filmmaker bespeaks contemporary viewers' loss of faith in the ability of documentary film to provide unequivocal truths.
Bill Nichols noted documentary’s recent tendencies towards the questioning of documentary truth: “Documentary has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images of personal worlds and their subjective construction” (1993, 174). What can be seen in the trends of recent documentaries is a move away from an understanding of truth as being a function of the traditional notion of the photograph’s indexical relationship with reality, and a growing acceptance of truth as being the subjective construction of our perceptions.
Linda Williams calls for a definition of documentary “not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths” (1993, 14). Therefore we come closer to the idea that documentary truth lies in an understanding of film as being similar in its processes to the way that humans organize the world through perception. We choose what we believe about what we see, and construct elaborate narratives to which we refer in order to make our way through life.
Films which illustrate this process of the construction of our understanding of reality are concerned with truth. Documentary truth can thus be seen as the truth of meaning making processes, not simply as the ‘actuality’ of an image. Here the breakdown between fiction and documentary is acute, as both forms of filmmaking can foreground the subjective construction of experience. If truth in film is separated from the image’s indexical relationship with the pro-filmic event, then it would seem that there can be no distinguishing between fiction and documentary.
However, Williams suggests that “an overly simplified dichotomy between truth and fiction is at the root of our difficulty in thinking about the truth in documentary” (1993, 20). Dai Vaughan suggests that “realism has nothing to do with totality but involves, on the part of the recipient, a sparking of understanding across gaps in the text; such creative response, such active construction of meaning by the recipient, lying at the heart of aesthetic pleasure” (1999, 202). In speaking of Errol Morris ‘ The Thin Blue Line, Brian McIlroy states The Vidor policeman recalls, fondly, David Harris’ care in looking after the murder weapon.
Morris inserts a blue water shot to convey the aesthetic appreciation that the Vidor policeman had for this crime’s details. By doing so, Morris shows us how the striving for aesthetics has helped to condemn a man, or to confuse the policeman’s main task to get to the “truth”… (1993, 296). The police officer in Morris’ film found aesthetic pleasure in the details of the case he was trying to extract the truth from; his mind, in the process of searching for truth, was searching for aesthetic understanding.
The implication of this for documentary film is that aesthetic constructions need not be contradictory to documentary’s interest in exploring the truth. However, Bill Nichols insists that truth in documentary depends on “a tension between the representation and the represented as experienced by the viewer. Remove this tension, enter a realm of aesthetic engagement, and the specific qualities and tensions no longer apply” (1991, 232). Nicols calls on the term “vivification – rendering felt what representations only allude to” which creates “a glimpse across the gulf between representation and experience” (1991, 231).
Nichols argues: What should be vivified is the experiential awareness of difference that, in the social construction of reality, has been knotted into contradiction. A text may vivify these tensions and thereby heighten our own awareness and experience of contradiction or paradox as a step in the process of disentangling, recasting, or transforming them (1991, 235). In a seminal essay on emerging digital film technologies, Stephen Prince argues for an understanding of film realism in terms of “perceptual realism” (1999, 394).
He suggests that digital imagery in film does not necessarily demand our understanding of such imagery as illusionist, but that such imagery can be used to create a realism which is much like a reality based on our understanding of human experience, not on the indexicality of the photographic image. “A perceptually realistic image is one which structurally corresponds to the viewer’s audiovisual experience of three-dimensional space.
Perceptually realistic images correspond to this experience because the filmmakers build them to do so. (1999, 400) Prince argues that we approach digitally created images that resemble our experience of the real world as being representative of how we make sense of the world. We understand such realistic digital images as being realistic because of the correspondences we make between them and our own experience. Here the contradiction between something that we understand as being non-existent and its apparent existence on film provides us with the necessary tensions for our minds to balance in order to make meaning.
The notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions. Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read. At the heart of the matter lies the concept of truth. Truth compels, but it also reveals. And to say that it reveals is to say that it is in some sense unsought - that it does not matter if we seek it or not.
Truth cannot be made, only apprehended. It is "not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing". The truth of the documentary then, is not the 'message' which its filmmaker may or may not have intended nor a meaning which we 'read into' the film, but something which escapes the control of both film maker and audience. Documentary functions just like in 'Here is something' says the film image, just like Socrates, and 'here is truth' says the film, just like Gadamer.